visual language: academia and the derisive sniff

Back to the complex visual language of graphic design.If academics spent more time scrounging in junk stores….

Art Chantry ( :

I spend a lot of time digging around in bins of garbage. i love it. I love going to goodwill stores, junk stores, church rummage sales, flea markets, antique malls and even the dump (but they don’t let you dig around there anymore.) It’s the best place to research real graphic design. I find the most famous and wonderful things in those places.

The problem comes when you decide to want to find out more. For instance, I discovered the wonders of Richard M. Powers and his almost forgotten accomplishments while digging up old sci-fi paperbacks (initially, just for the covers.) I would never have known that he was the guy who changed our collective ideas about science fiction from Buck Rogers/space guns to surreal alien landscapes and swirling prismatic colors. In fact, it wasn’t until i lined up my collection to think about them that I noticed that they all had the same signature.

He was the illustrator of choice among the new wave of science fiction artists like Blish, Bradbury, Dick, Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, etc. etc. When their book came out in paperback, it was considered a badge of honor to have the cover done up by Powers. Those old paperbacks are almost forgotten now, by seemingly everybody except the insider geek collectors. But, he almost single-handedly changed our perspective on wonderment and how it looked. and he executed literally THOUSANDS of covers.

Art Chantry:i find stuff like this every time i go look in the crap out there. we toss away great design like it was nothing. we sell it in k-mart. we offer a disposable artform.

However, when I tried to research more info about him and his fabulous career, there was almost nothing out there. He had been ignored by the “design culture”. After all, he did that tacky sci-fi stuff. Not high-brow enough (for literature) back then. I ended up learning more about his career by actually tracking him down and talking to him (then i hired him to do a record cover illustration for me. but that’s another story)

Another great artist I re-discovered in thrift stores was Reid Miles, the genius designer behind Blue Note records. Granted, he’s ultra-famous now among the hipoisie of the designer chic set. But, back in the 70′s, he was only known by jazz record collectors, virtually forgotten by the mainstream design world.

Reid Miles may not ring a bell to some of you out there, but he’s the guy who designed what contemporary jazz LOOKS like. Prior to his work on blue note, the way jazz “looked” was defined by the illustration style of David Stone Martin (whose ragged line drawings influenced a several generations of artists including everybody from Ben Shahn to the young Andy Warhol to Ed Fotheringham).

Then Reid Miles started literally “knocking out” those cool minimal, exquisitely photographed (largely by Francis Wolf), geometric abstracted covers. The style is still the dominant look of the cult of cool. It’s the official jazz “corporate graphic standard.”


Richard M. Powers design read more:

When I researched Reid Miles (through talking to people who knew him). I learned that Reid Miles never listened to jazz – he didn’t like it. He never listened to any of the records he designed the covers for!!! He did them for the money (and precious little of that). He would slam the things together overnight and collect his paycheck. He preferred country and western. He was a flamboyant gay man who loved to country two-step. people have told me hilarious stories of Reid Miles pounding on the door of type shops late at night wearing a feathered boa and screaming for typesetting (“immediately!”) this was not the picture of the jazz hipster (wearing shades and a beret) I imagined.

Reid Miles later abandoned the ‘blue note’ style entirely and became a photographer/designer. Among his later works were the cover for Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” LP and a cover for the band “Chicago” (the one with the sign painter motif). Go figger, eh?

---Richard M. Powers (Richard Michael Gorman Powers) began by working in a conventional pulp paperback style, but quickly evolved a personal Surrealist idiom influenced by the cubists and surrealists, especially Picasso and Yves Tanguy. From the 1940s through the 1960s, he did many of covers for Doubleday. During the 1950s and 1960s, he served as an unofficial art director for Ballantine Books.---Read More:

So, these were a couple of the cool American designers I learned about through combing thrift stores. the mainstream academic thought of “design culture” rarely mentions people like these, largely because they are working in cultural arenas that are dismissed as “unimportant” or (that awful word) “vernacular”. Science fiction? Jazz? excuse me?

The problem with academia is that it is isolated from the real larger culture. It feeds off it’s own ideas to the point where the thought becomes narrowly defined. I think that world (and the resulting ‘professionally trained” world of ‘design culture’) needs to open it’s eyes and it’s minds to the idea that there are very lively, very large and hugely influential arenas of design language spoken out there besides the material written up in the official design histories (written by other academics).

---REID MILES was an American graphic designer who, in 1955, was hired to design album covers for legendary jazz record label BLUE NOTE. MILES was paid $50 a cover and having little interest in jazz, designed solely on the session descriptions given to him by producer ALFRED LION. Umm… WHAAAT?!?!---- click on photo

Most of all they need to stop lumping this langauge into an insulting artifical caltegory currently labeled “vernacular”. That category assumes there is no dialog, no thought, no authorship, no inherent CULTURE worth recognizing in the work so labeled. it assumes that this “lowbrow” language grew on a tree, isolated and ‘folkish’ in conception and execution. It dismisses with damning praise.

The academics couldn’t be more wrong. There are beautiful dialogs here that span centuries, producing major practitioners and stunning bodies of work rivaling the biggest and most famous names in design. The contributions of these excluded artists far surpass the fevered imaginings of many (if not most) of the ‘famous men’ of design culture. Why we pray at the alter of Paul Rand and studiously ignore (and even sniff derisively) at Von Dutch totally confuses me. i mean, be honest, whose contributions and magnificent visions made the larger impact on our lives?

Maybe those academics need to spend more time at school in the junk stores…

---Twenty-nine years after its founding, Reid Miles joined the Blue Note team. In the time Miles spent working for Blue Note records, starting in 1956 and leaving in the late sixties, he created almost 500 pieces of album art. His work demonstrated graphic design’s ability to articulate a visual companion to the abstract. As a result of the visual potency of Miles’ work, Blue Note Records became known for especially unique cover art. Much like the personal styles that blare out from the records of each jazz musician that Miles’ art represents, Miles’ own visual style resonates on the page. Working within the modernist format, Miles employed geometric designs while still keeping the arrangements fresh and distinctive for each jazz artist. Francis Wolff, one of the founders of Blue Note Records and coincidentally a professional photographer, would provide many of the photographs that Miles used in his designs. Formally, Miles’ work is often made up of tinted black and white photos, as in his cover design for Hank Mobley’s album “Soul Station.” Many of his designs follow this limited color palette (black, white, and a third color—usually blue or red). Also, evident in this piece is the balance Miles creates between type and image. His arrangement of type, which was almost always sans serif, is reminiscent of the Swiss principles of design that were prominent at the time in artists such as Josef Muller-Brockmann.--- click on image for more...

I found this book cover _ the first image in the article-(dust jacket, actually) in a bin of discarded books this weekend. It’s wonderful. It apparently it was printed before Chandler wrote his final (and in my opinion greatest) novel, “The Long Goodbye”. so, this was produced during his lifetime. I assume he had to ok it as well.

It’s a simple elegant design, almost a throw-away concept, beautifully executed by an unknown master (anybody out there know who “C.W.B.” was?) it’s also interesting to notice that the fella knew his guns. Each silhouette is a popular model actually in use in the relative era of each novel collected in this anthology. Smart guy. Good designer.

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